Sunday, March 29, 2020

Sermon: Romans 8: 18-27 Groaning for Glory

May the words of my lips, and the thoughts of all our hearts, be now and always pleasing in your sight, O Lord, our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

We knew it was probably coming at some point, but when the Prime Minister announced the current lockdown on Monday evening, it seemed to take many of us by surprise. The clear command is to stay at home, except for very limited and specific purposes, such as getting basic necessities, daily exercise, seeking medical help, and travelling to and from work where absolutely necessary.

In the same address, Boris Johnston made it very clear why these restrictions were being put in place. He said this: ‘From this evening I must give the British people a very simple instruction - you must stay at home. Because the critical thing we must do it stop the disease spreading between households.’ And near the end he said, ‘In this fight we can be in no doubt that each and every one of us is directly enlisted. Each and every one of us is now obliged to join together. To halt the spread of this disease. To protect our NHS and to save many many thousands of lives. And I know that as they have in the past so many times. The people of this country will rise to that challenge. And we will come through it stronger than ever. We will beat the coronavirus and we will beat it together.’

Did you notice the reason why the restrictions have been put in place? To stop the spread, to protect the NHS and to save lives. For a time, we endure a period of hardship, because it will be worth it in the end. We may suffer for a while, but it will end, and we’ll be glad we did. And that’s what Paul tells us in our reading from Romans chapter 8 today.

On Sunday evenings before the lockdown, we were in a short series in Romans 8. In Romans, Paul is writing to the Christians in Rome, setting out the gospel in its fullness. Chapter 8 is the summary of all that he’s already written, and draws out the implications of the good news of Jesus for the believer.

In verse 1, we saw how ‘therefore, there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.’ We can already know God’s verdict on us here and now - as we trust in Jesus, the verdict is ‘not guilty.’ And as the chapter continues, we find that we’re not just forgiven, we are also given the Holy Spirit, the Spirit of adoption, who confirms that we are indeed God’s children - by him we call God, ‘Abba, Father.’ This is all amazingly wonderful news. And then in verse 17, just before our reading, Paul introduces the subject of suffering. He writes: ‘Now if we are children, then we are heirs - heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.’

And something inside of us reacts to that. We think - yes, we’re on board for all of God’s blessings and benefits, bring them on! But suffering? Maybe not. And that reaction might be even stronger when we hear verse 18 in our reading today: ‘I consider that our present sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us.’ Really?

You might think that Paul doesn’t really understand suffering. Maybe he’s had a comfortable, easy life, hasn’t really undergone any suffering, and doesn’t really know what he’s talking about. But that couldn’t be further from the truth. In another part of the Bible, he shares some of his experiences:
beatings, stonings, shipwrecks, constant danger, toil and hardship, hunger, thirst, in cold and exposure. (See 2 Cor 11:23-29) He knew what it was to suffer, so he’s not making light of suffering, rather, he makes much of the glory to be revealed.

It’s as if Paul has a pair of balancing scales. He puts all of the suffering in one side, and on the other, the glory that will be revealed in us. It’s not that our sufferings are greater; and it’s not that the suffering and glory is about the same, perfectly balanced. No, there’s no comparison. The glory completely surpasses and totally outweighs the suffering. Anything we face or endure now will be more than worth it in the end.

And the word that expresses our current experience is the word: groaning. Is that the word that summarises your current experience of this lockdown? Groaning with frustration, perhaps, as your regular routine has been restricted. Groaning with boredom as you wonder how you’re going to put in another long day. Groaning with loneliness. Well that word, groaning, is the word that characterises today’s passage. Paul uses it three times, as he speaks of the current suffering and the incomparable glory that is to come.

First of all, the creation has been groaning. Verse 19: ‘The creation waits in eager expectation for the sons of God to be revealed.’ You know the way some people count down to their birthday, and know how many sleeps it is. Or you might wait for a delivery to arrive, and you’re watching out for it. Creation itself is on tip toes, watching and waiting, with eager longing, for the revealing of the sons of God. Why does the earth do that? Why are the animals and birds and trees and every blade of grass waiting in this way?

‘For the creation was subjected to frustration, not by its own choice, but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be liberated from its bondage to decay and brought into the glorious freedom of the children of God.’ (20-21)

At present, the creation is frustrated. It’s in bondage to decay. I don’t need to tell you that - you experience it every day. Things wear out and break down. The lovely banana you were going to eat has turned black and mouldy. Thorns and thistles and weeds spring up. ‘Change and decay in all around I see’ as the hymn puts it. It’s the world as we know it, but it’s not the way the world was originally made.

In Genesis 3 we hear of the bondage of creation - not by creation’s choice, but as a consequence of Adam and Eve’s decision to rebel against God’s good and gracious rule. The world is under the curse, but it’s done in the hope that one day bondage will cease, and creation will share in the glorious freedom of God’s children.

Paul describes creation’s groaning as in the pains of childbirth. The groans and pain are worth it, whenever the baby has been born. And that’s what is happening around us, as the creation groans, in anticipation of release and freedom. Can you imagine how glorious our world will be when decay has been stopped? When viruses are no more? When there’s no more sadness or sickness or suffering or sin?

The gospel is more than just me and my ticket to heaven. The victory that Jesus has won is for the whole creation. The natural world will share in our redemption. And in the meantime, the creation groans.

It’s not just the creation groaning, though. You see, we too share in that groaning. Believers are groaning too. ‘not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption as sons, the redemption of our bodies.’ (23)

We are living in the now, and the not yet. Already we have the firstfruits, the presence of the Spirit, and the final verdict. We get to taste what eternal life will be like, but there’s more to come. And so we groan, as we wait. We’re still weighed down with sin, and sorrow, and suffering. We long for the day when we receive our new resurrection bodies, when we see God face to face, and live with him forever. And so we groan as we wait.

But we wait in hope. Now, we use the word hope in lots of different ways. You might hope the weather will be good tomorrow; but it may not be. Often, our hopes are more like wishful thinking - wouldn’t it be nice if... But the Christian hope is not like those vague wishes. Our hope is sure and certain, as we trust God’s promises and wait for what he will give to us. ‘For in this hope we were saved. But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what he already has? But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently.’ (24-25)

If our present Christian experience is all that there is, then there’s nothing to hope for. But hope looks to the future, to what God will do. And we wait patiently, because the glory to be revealed in us is worth far more than anything we endure here and now.

The creation is groaning; and Christians are groaning. And, as Paul continues, we find that the Spirit is also groaning. Let’s read the last verses: ‘In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with groans that words cannot express. And he who searches our hearts knows the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints in accordance with God’s will.’ (26-27)

All through this chapter, Paul has been reminding us about the power and presence of the Spirit in the life of the Christian. And the Spirit helps us in our weakness. Have you ever found yourself wanting to pray, but not knowing what to pray? You’ve promised that you’ll pray for a friend, but the words don’t come. Or you’re facing a situation in your own life, and you struggle to know what to pray for. You are not alone! When we struggle to find the words, the Spirit himself is praying for us, with groans that words cannot express. He takes our groaning, and groans our prayers for us, translating them into prayers in line with God’s will. He knows and understands our hearts, our sighs, our longings, and prays on our behalf.

Perhaps you’re struggling under the current restrictions - remember what Boris has said - it’s just for a time, and it’ll be worth it. So how much more, what God has said here in Romans chapter 8. Our present sufferings, characterised by the groaning of creation, and our groaning, and the groaning of the Spirit - those sufferings are not worth comparing with the glory that will be revealed in us. A short period of pain, leading to an infinitely greater pleasure. Suffering now, and glory after. That’s our story, here and now, because it is the story of the gospel; the pattern that Jesus himself followed - the cross before the crown.

Jesus endured the cross, bearing our sin and shame; wearing the symbol of the curse, the crown of thorns; in order to enter his glory by overturning the curse, and ushering in life and peace; victory over death, and bringing his new heavens and new earth, where righteousness dwells. We are called to follow his pattern, as we wait for the glory to be revealed - his glory in us.

So let’s pray. Lord God, whose blessed Son our Saviour
gave his back to the smiters
and did not hide his face from shame:
Give us grace to endure the sufferings of this present time
with sure confidence in the glory that shall be revealed,
through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday morning 29th March 2020 for the broadcast service during the COVID-19 pandemic.

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